Sunset Song is visually superb, but a bleak and dreary affair, and dramatically flawed
Terrence Davies is lauded by some film authorities (and a host of pretenders who take reverent heed of Mr Google and “Top Critics” in Rotten Tomatoes) as “Britain’s greatest living filmmaker.” With that heavyweight reputation bearing down, and Sunset Song shaping as 70-year-old Davies’ swansong, there’s a certain pressure as a reviewer to declare the work a triumph, or at least a sense that to be less than wowed is to demonstrate a deficit of cinematic refinement and sophistication. Well, nuts to that.
True confession: I do not know Terrence Davies’ work. Sunset Song is the first of his films I’ve seen. Line me up before a firing squad of film buffs and shoot me at dawn.
Let’s be clear. I speak as I find. I have no agenda other than to do my best to give readers a clear impression of whether I like a film, and why. The hope is that readers will be able to assess how closely my taste matches theirs, and thus to be accurately guided, most of the time, as to which movies to spend their time and money on.
So should you mark down Sunset Song as a must-see from a genius director? Well, in my view no. The film’s dramatic flaws are too many and too serious. See below. However, if you’re very into visuals you’re in for a treat, and that might compensate for the dramatic shortcomings. Davies’ scene composition is painterly and masterful, and the superb cinematography works beautifully in service of his artistic vision.
There is no better example than the gorgeous opening scene. Indeed, for me this was the high point of the movie. An expansive, undulating field of golden grain (rye, I think) fills the screen, rustling in the Scottish highland winds. As the camera moves in on a section of the field, a young woman, Chris (Agyness Deyn), sits up suddenly like a mythical figure arising out of the very heart of the land. We learn in voice-over (hers, referring to herself in third person, which she does throughout – why?) that she is torn between staying in the rustic country she loves and making a new urban life for herself as a newly-qualified teacher. Thus, Davies prefigures a struggle between tradition and change, around which the narrative is structured.
Leave girl, leave, you find yourself urging when her situation unfolds. Chris is one of a horde of children in an early 20th century dirt-poor farming family presided over by a brutal Bible-wielding tyrant of a man (Peter Mullan). Enraged by a trifle, he takes to his eldest son’s bared back with the buckle end of his belt. It’s a fearsome whipping, sickening to watch. Chris is subsequently depicted in Pieta pose, tending her whimpering big brother’s bleeding back. Curiously, the cutting lashes of the belt are etched in even stripes – the buckle would surely have gouged out chunks of flesh. But hey, this is art and verisimilitude is apparently aesthetically inappropriate here, the grimly realist nature of the piece notwithstanding.
The monstrous patriarch reaps what he sows, and the family disintegrates via tragic death, adoption, and marriage. Chris is the only one left, lumped with the task of caring for her father when he suffers a stroke. Fortunately, the old bastard doesn’t last long, clearing the way for her to wed her clandestine sweetheart, Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). They live in her family cottage, soon she is with bairn, and life, at last, is bliss. But of course, it can’t last. With WW1 underway, Ewan reluctantly enlists. Bye bye love, hello emptiness…
The film builds well to the point at which Ewen departs for the front, but thereafter it enters a death spiral. When Ewan returns on leave, it’s as if he is Chris’s beast of a father incarnate. The sweet, caring, sensitive, boyish husband that left for war has become a different person entirely. Drunkenly staggering through the front door, he boasts of the whores he’s had in France, shouts at his infant son, demands food of his wife, and that night violently and forcefully sodomises her. It’s impossible to accept that he could have changed like this, and even if you allow that the horrors of war could bring about such a transformation, that he would behave in such a manner from the outset of his homecoming beggars belief.
The instances of implausibility do not stop there, but I’m not going to elaborate further out of spoiler consciousness. Suffice to say, the film changes from a slow-paced, realist family tragedy to a melodrama that is rushed to its unconvincing anti-war conclusion, complete with clichéd scenes of a muddy WW1 battlefield pocked with bomb crater puddles, and strewn with barbed wire and dead soldiers’ socks. Poor widowed Chris, full of grief and sorrow, has the last word, waxing transcendently lyrical in voice-over about the land she holds so dear. She quotes herself in third person declaring “I am the land”, adding some overblown poetic utterances to emphasise this already oft-made point.
As you will have gathered, in my view the superb visual aspects do not compensate for the bleakness and dreariness of the tale, or the collapsing of the narrative, or the self-conscious “poetic” quality of the far-too-frequent voice-overs, which often redundantly describe something simultaneously happening on screen, and come across as grandiose relics from a literary source text (the film is adapted from a famous Scottish novel).
Indeed, the charge of grandiosity might be levelled at Davies himself. I couldn’t avoid the uncomfortable sense that he was moved by his own perceived genius in this film, holding fast to the conviction that he was turning out a work for the ages. It’s as if he has fallen for the artistically fatal trap of believing in his own myth. A pity, this late in the day.
Movie website: http://www.sunset-song-film.com/showtimes
Australian release date: 1 Sep 2016 (@ Cinema Paradiso in Perth)
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